Bridging the digital divide

Computer Weekly looks at how IT has contributed to the increasing gap between rich and poor

Computer Weekly looks at how IT has contributed to the increasing gap between rich and poor

If Robin Hood were alive today, he would probably be deeply concerned about what technology is doing to the world. He would be railing against the inequalities of IT, the fact that it makes rich societies richer and poor societies poorer in comparison.

While there is no doubt that IT has been a boon to many and helped the business world to prosper, it has also widened the gap between the rich and the poor, creating a world of information-haves and have-nots.

It is what is known as the digital divide. Even within developed, there is a gap between those who have access to IT and those who do not, but the problem is most acute in developing countries.

However, the effect of technology on poorer nations has not been all negative. It can be, and has been, deployed to rebuild economies, establish new trade routes with the developed world and help disadvantaged people improve their prospects.

This is why the United Nations has designated

2001 as the year of "Bridging the Digital Divide". Each year the UN pinpoints a global issue that requires particular attention - last year, it was "Human Rights and Human Development" and the year before was "Globalisation with a Human Face".

For the Bridging the Digital Divide campaign, the UN has been bringing together representatives from around the world to discuss what is happening in their countries, how technology could improve conditions and how it could be implemented. It brought out a study - the Human Development Report 2001: Making New Technologies Work for Human Development - which shows just how far some third world countries are lagging behind the developed world in terms of technology use.

The scope of technology is much broader than just bits, bytes and Internet access. The UN is also concerned with technology in the fields of science, agriculture and medicine.

For the ordinary person to find out what the UN has actually been doing in its campaign is not an easy task. In the main, it has brought together world leaders, drawn up strategic guidelines and issued various reports, most of which are very wordy and repetitive.

It has identified several key areas that world leaders need to be addressing to bridge the divide: leadership, vision, skills, the creation of clear policies and strategies and ensuring the right infrastructure and legislation is in place to push technology forward.

If technology is to become a significant force in developing countries, individual governments and businesses need to ensure that there is the right environment and frameworks for it to grow. This means a culture of co-operation and integration.

The UN believes developed countries have a responsibility to assist the third world in harnessing technology. When Tim Berners-Lee created the World-Wide Web in the 1980s, his vision was of global connectivity and the free sharing of ideas, information and goods between people all around the world. He is greatly disappointed that many of the people who could benefit from the technology most - the disadvantaged living in developing countries - have been denied access to it and instead find themselves left even further behind by the rest of the world.

"Technology has certainly increased the divide between the haves and the have-nots," says Berners-Lee. "It is very important to invest in helping third world countries get up to speed. It is the duty of richer countries to help."

Berners-Lee is the director of the World-Wide Web Consortium, a forum of companies and organisations set up in 1994 to oversee the development of the Web. He believes part of its responsibility is to help people from developing countries get online. To do this, there needs to be the right technology in place to make it feasible.

"Internet technology was invented by the West for the West and relies on an established network of telephone lines that use modems," he says. "We should be looking at making technology that works without an organised social structure, such as wireless communications."

The UN has highlighted telecommunications as the key to opening up access to IT, and there is a strong demand for new wireless technology.

This is particularly important in places such as India or Russia where huge populations are spread across vast areas. Just as there is a divide between developed and developing countries, so there is often a divide within countries themselves. As technology, skills and training are concentrated in the cities, rural economies are left to flounder.

Countries need to build digital communities that include all citizens. Skills and training are essential to make this a success, as there is little point putting IT in place if there are insufficient resources to support it.

India is a prime example of a country that has capitalised on the benefits of creating an IT-literate workforce. According to the UN, its software exports exceeded $4bn (£2.5bn) in 2000 and the service economy contributed to more than 60% of the economy output in IT hubs such as Mumbai (formerly Bombay) last year.

The campaign is not about simply giving third world citizens the same technology enjoyed by people in the West. It is about enabling access to technology that will help them in their everyday lives, particularly in terms of education and helping them to trade with developed countries.

Then there are things that Westerners take for granted, such as access to political, social and medical information. "For many, simple e-mail services and access to basic health and lifestyle information would be a giant step forward," says John Fisher, chief executive of UK organisation CitizensOnline. "It is about empowering them to build their own digital communities and not copying the consumerist models from elsewhere."

These are the advantages that can make the biggest difference to impoverished societies.

To find out more about the UN's activities go to

Next week Xtra! looks at how IT organisations are attempting to overcome the digital divide

Read more on IT legislation and regulation